[December 1, 2013] Today is the First Sunday of Advent and the beginning of the church year. Advent means “coming,” referring to the coming of the Lord. It is a season, lasting from now until Christmas (Christmas begins another season). During Advent there are four Sundays, each with a different emphasis. On this Sunday we emphasize the Lord’s second coming. Before, He came in humility; when He comes again, He will come in glory.
Why Church Seasons?
Church seasons, like Advent and Christmas, are not commandments that came down from God. They are traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation that we people have invented for our own sake. Like a family, the church has its own traditions. If we think of the church as a school, the seasons are part of an educational cycle, like part of the annual curriculum. They help us cover all the bases so we end up with a balanced perspective.
We are a family; we are also teachers and students. We are also followers and disciples and servants, even slaves of God. The things we learn teach us our responsibilities and duties. They teach us how to obey God. God has a claim on us; He owns us and has rights over us. Our entire lives belong to God, not only the parts we hide from others but even what we hide from ourselves. The variety of church seasons helps us consider all aspects of what we owe God.
The church is a family, a school, and even a community of fellow-slaves, but perhaps more important than anything else, we are a worshiping community. We worship and celebrate God, and what God has done, is doing and will do. When we worship we focus more on God than on ourselves. It involves us, of course, for we bring and offer ourselves to God, but we do it out of love and praise of God, not as some sort of religious exercise for ourselves. Even though we owe God our worship, we don’t do it out of obligation. It wells up out of desire and love and thankful awe. It comes from the heart.
Church seasons give us variety when we worship God so we are not always worshiping God in the same way. We do not want to always harp on one side of things. We recall different things about God and what God does, so our worship is well-rounded. This is healthy; otherwise we tend to get lop-sided, always favoring one side or another.
The Two Advents
So let’s get back to Advent. It means “coming.” The Jews of the Bible and our Jewish neighbors today believe that the Messiah is coming. We believe as they do; but we also believe that the One Who is coming has also already come. This is an essential element of our faith. The One Who has already come will come again. We live between these two events, the First and the Second Advents of Christ.
During the season of Advent we blend the two together. As we look forward to Christmas, which is the celebration of the First Advent, we also look forward to the Christ’s Second Advent, His coming in glory. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, we overlay one expectation on top of the other. The blend has the common quality of expectation. Christians are people who hope, who expect the Lord to come, who are not happy with this world but whose eyes are on the coming of God.
Our time is bracketed by the First and Second Advents, but between these times we also expect the Lord to come into our midst when we worship, when we listen to the Word, and when we break bread. He really does come, but He is not visible to our eyes. He was quite visible during His first coming and will be even more visible during His second coming. In between, He is not visible to the eye.
The Christian Hope
Christ came. To believe in Him is faith. Christ will come in glory. To look forward to His coming is hope. Christ is here now. When Christ lives in us, there is love. Faith, hope and love—these three abide. We are not complete unless we have all three.
When the Bible (and the church) uses the word “hope,” we do not just mean that we want something to happen that might not happen. It does not even mean that you anticipate or expect something to happen, but you know it might still not happen. When we use the word “hope” we mean not only that we desire something to happen but we have a certainty that it will happen, we are sure of it. Even if we have a hard time believing it, we assert that it is true whether we believe it or not. Jesus will come back, in glory. We insist that this is as true as the fact that Jesus came. He was born of a virgin; He was crucified, He was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven; just as surely, He is coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
So here’s the thing. In this time between the first coming and the second coming, the Lord is still with us. He already came and He is coming again, but in a very real way, Who He was never left us. Who He was is here, in and among us. The Old Testament does not only speak of the Messiah’s coming. The prophets spoke of the Messiah’s coming as God’s own coming. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” they said, meaning, God. “The Lord is coming to judge the earth,” meaning God is coming. Well, God came, in Jesus of Nazareth, in great humility, among the poor, and the powerful people of the world crucified Him. He rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven. And we will not see Him again until His coming in glory, when every eye shall see Him. Compared to His coming in glory when every eye shall see Him, His first coming was hidden. Only a few people recognized that this Man was the coming of God.
Yet when Jesus left, He did not leave us alone. He remained with us by giving us the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is just as much His presence as His physical body would be if it were visible before us. Actually, His presence is even more present because it is more intimate, because it is an interior presence. He is not outside of us but in us. The Holy Spirit is the presence of Christ within us. So Christ is in heaven, but He is also within us. And He does not only occupy the interior space of each person, He also occupies the interior space of the church, our collective interior space. He is present among us, not only within us individually. But because His presence is interior, it is still hidden from the world. Only those who believe know that the Lord is here.
When He comes in glory, He will bring salvation to those who wait for Him. We know salvation a little bit now. We know the forgiveness of our sins, and we know His presence within and among us by the Holy Spirit. But then we will know the salvation of our souls and the transformation of our bodies.
When He comes in glory, we will be changed. Whether we are dead or alive at the time, whether we will be raised from the dead or our present bodies are changed, our bodies will be like Christ’s resurrected body. The world too will see Him, and when it does, it also will change (see Isaiah 2:1-5).
He Is Coming to Judge the Living and the Dead
Jesus will come to be the Judge of the living and the dead, that is, of everyone who has ever lived. We who believe will be judged so that we can be fully saved. But those who do not believe will also be judged. Everyone will have to give an account of herself before God. Nothing will be hidden from God, or from each individual. Each person will see himself in God’s light, in the searing light of God’s holiness and righteousness. That light will be like a fire, and it will burn forever and ever (indeed, it is already like this). The only thing that will save us from that fire is that we are in Christ. On the cross He was a bush that was burning but was not consumed. He bore our judgment on the cross. In Him we are judged by God’s fire and because we are in Him we are not consumed. As a result, the light of God that shines on us shines through us and makes us shine.
Christians have different beliefs about the second coming of Christ. There are many uncertainties. We should be humble and not think that any of us has all the answers.
(1) That Jesus has already come once, and (2) that His second coming has not yet taken place, but (3) is certain to take place at some point—when Jesus Himself shall come in glory to be both our Savior and the Judge of all—these are beliefs upon which the Christian church depends. Throughout the centuries and all over the world Christians stand up and confess together that “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and His kingdom will have no end,” and “we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” This is our hope.
Being Ready for His Coming (Matthew 24:36-44)
Not only do we believe these things and have this sure and certain hope, but Jesus also tells us in today’s text, Matthew 24:36-44, to make ourselves ready for His coming, and to watch and wait for Him to come. Paul, in Romans 13:11-14, also tell us that we are to live each day in the light of His coming, in a manner that anticipates His coming.
Jesus says no one knows the day of His coming. This means that when it comes, it will surprise the people of the world the way that Noah’s Flood surprised the people in his day. They all kept on living as they had been, as if nothing was going to change and the course of things was going to go on forever, uninterrupted. So it will be when the Son of Man comes. His coming too will be in judgment, and just as the Flood “came and swept them all away” (“took all away”: airō, to take away) so will the judgment of the Son of Man. But just as Noah and his family were “taken” out of the path of God’s judgment, separated by the ark, and the others were left, so when Christ comes, His own will be “taken” to Himself (paralambanō, to take to oneself, receive). Already baptism separates us from the world as the ark separated Noah and his family from the world (1 Peter 3:21), though as such it is only a sign to the world. To God our baptism only becomes visible as a mark of separation when it has been activated by fidelity (faith) and readiness.
The point of the comparison is that Christ’s believers must not be caught unprepared when Christ comes all of a sudden, without any warning. Even though we “believe” He is coming again in great power and glory to judge the world, we must not live as though we do not believe it. For us our lives in this world, and the world itself, must already come under our internal judgment. We must live as though we agree with God’s verdict on things even if the sentencing has not yet been carried out—because for us the verdict and the sentencing has most certainly been carried out ON THE CROSS. That verdict and sentence must be very real to us, and it ought to be reflected in our outlook on the world, and on our life in the world.
When we live otherwise, say, when we are in denial of climate change, because we want to continue living in our self-indulgent and rampant consumerism, bulldozering the limited resources of the planet just so that we do not have to change (or worse, so we can have even more than we already have), then we can rest assured that we will be left behind when Christ comes to gather His own to Himself. This is just one example.
Having the hope of Christ’s coming before us, and having the verdict and sentence of His judgment on the world inscribed in our hearts by the cross, so that we are drawn to Christ and move freely in one direction and are severely restricted in other directions, this is what it means to “stay awake.” If Christ is the object of our hearts and our hearts (with Him as their object) are fully awake, then we will not be caught off guard by His coming.
It is the night time of the world, for we live in darkness. When Christ comes there will be a burglary. We are like a householder who needs to stay awake to prevent our goods from being robbed when the thief attempts to break through the wall of our home. I am pretty sure that we are the householder since it is we who are instructed to stay awake in verse 42, but I am less sure who the thief is and what are the goods. If I, as a believer, am not awake to the hope of Christ’s coming, and if I, as a believer, do not treasure in my heart the verdict and sentencing of the world by our Lord Jesus when He suffered on the cross, then I will be left behind. If that happens, then the thief has broken through the wall of my house and stolen my goods. The thief, in this case, is the “Flood” of the Lord’s judgment (like the Destroyer in Exodus 12:23), and I have been caught in it, swept away with it, and the goods that I have lost are the privileges that my Christian profession has given me.
I am not saying that a believer will lose his or her eternal salvation, but they will lose their reward and their entrance into the enjoyment of the kingdom. 1 Corinthians 3:13-15 says that the believer will indeed be saved but “as someone might expect to be saved from a fire”—that is, without their goods intact. The five foolish virgins were excluded from the wedding feast, and he who was unfaithful with the “little” that he was given had that little taken away. “For at the judgment seat of Christ we are all to be seen for what we are, so that each of us may receive what he has deserved in the body, matched to whatever he has done, good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10; see also Romans 14:10b-12). A believer can be excluded from the enjoyment of the coming kingdom and instead come under the Lord’s discipline until she is ready.
Living as Children of the Day (Romans 13:11-14)
The message of Paul in Romans 13 is along the same line. The world is in the darkness of night. Accordingly, it is asleep, and in the soul of every Jew and gentile there is a longing for the light of day. But in its sleep, the world is living “in orgies and drunkenness, in promiscuity and licentiousness, with wrangling and jealousy.” This is a state of not being awake, of living in a kind of self-absorbed delusion, in which others are not really there except as objects of my own pleasure. I am, in other words, sealed away and isolated in my own mind—like I were asleep—and others only float before me as in a dream.
To truly enjoy another, when there is real love-making, the other is present to me as a subject rather than an object, as an “I” who is face-to-face with my “I,” and our love-making is this “we” between us.
But the so-called love-making that is purely self-indulgent and therefore possessive and jealous, and this “wrangling” with others because we cannot really engage them, this is characteristic of the way the world is. It is asleep, but restlessly, in the darkness of night.
There is an anxiety about satisfying the “flesh,” or as the New Jerusalem Bible translates it, “your disordered natural inclinations.” Literally Paul uses the word for meat or skin: “flesh.” By this term and the accompanying term “desire” (epithumia) Paul does not refer only to our sexual desires. Rather by flesh he means the isolation of body from spirit in the field of our consciousness, so that we treat the sensations our body as an abstraction, as an idea instead of what it really is—the body alive is always spirited-body, inseparable from what makes the person a person. We do not have a separate body, as we tend to think. This separation that we imagine is the “flesh,” and its “desires” are a delusion. We “love” an image we have constructed of the other person and attempt to indulge an image we have of our own desires; we are in our minds and not really present to the other, nor is their actual presence penetrating us. We are not yet awake; we are still asleep in the darkness of the world’s night. Paul has no problem with our real desires, but to know them, to “be” them, would require that we be awake.
But “the night is nearly over, daylight is on the way.” “By now our salvation is nearer than when we first began to believe.” The coming of the Lord will end the night and bring us daylight. This daylight is the kingdom of God. The apostles speak of the Lord’s coming as the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ or His manifestation. We could have seen Jesus with our eyes, as Pontius Pilate did, and not see Who He is. To see Him as the Son of God, as the “I am” of God, that is, as fully God, and yet fully human, inseparably and without division, yet without confusion or essential change, to immediately intuit this, to have one’s inner eyes opened so that one simply sees this—this is revelation. To thus intuit Him, is to intuit this human being—Who is God—as Jesus crucified and resurrected. It is overpowering and overwhelming, suddenly erasing and rewriting one’s perception of reality. When the Lord comes, this revelation—this perception of reality—will be universally manifest. It will come to everyone (the revelation will, with—or without, it seems to me—the historical particulars of Jesus of Nazareth attached to it). In other words, the true nature of reality will be universally perceived. What is the true nature of reality? It is time open to eternity (for eternity contains time), in which created nature participates fully in divinity by means of personhood (as in Christ, divinity partakes fully in humanity, a particular instance of created being), in eternity, all createdness becoming included in the communion of persons. This is what Paul means by daylight (or so it seems to me).
What Paul is saying to the believers in Rome is that even though the world is still in darkness and the daylight has not yet come, we are to ourselves live in the daylight. For us it has already come (in some small measure) and we are to live in its light. This light shines for us on the inside; it is an interior light still invisible to others. But it nevertheless shines for us. We are to live by this light, as if it were already day, and not by the night which surrounds us on the outside. We are to wake up and not be asleep like everyone else. Even though for us the light is interior, because the day has not yet dawned, we are to live by this light outwardly, that is, in our practical living. We are to live our lives alone and among other people—even among the people of our societies—as if it there were already daylight, as if the light of the day were already shining. If we are awake, and we perceive reality—to some extent—the way it is and not the way it is perceived in the shared cultural delusion, then it has to show in the different way that we live our lives. We simply will not value what other people value; and we will value people themselves, as real people, and creation itself, much more. We will see beauty and goodness where others only see greater or less utility. And we will see emptiness where others are frantic with desire.
The Christian hope is the Lord’s Second Advent. For us it means the end of all this sadness and the ushering of something unutterably wonderful. It is a hope that permeates our daily lives, that changes our outlook on everything and makes us live our lives differently.
We may not be able to have any hope for the future of humanity as it now is or for the survival of the human species, but the hope that we have in the Second Advent exceeds the limitations of this one planet. It is cosmic and has to do with the evolution of the entire universe (or multiverse, if we prefer). The cross of Christ casts a negative light on the human project but a positive light on the universal telos. Our hope is therefore unaffected by any negative prognosis.
On the other hand, our hope tells us how to live regardless of such a prognosis. We are not to live according to the night of the human “project,” but in the liberated zone of light. If the human species does not survive, it will be because of its sleepy-headedness, because of its remaining in its self-generated delusion. If we live in the light and as if the light already shines on the world (for in a very real sense it does—the world is just blind to it), our decisions will accord with what will help us survive and will in any case not contribute to our extinction. Either way, we will already be living in accord with that part of the universe which is moving forward into the light, perhaps in accord with people on other worlds.
To live in such hope is to give up cynicism and despair, whereby our efforts for the good die. Rather it makes us live constructive lives for the good of all, and makes us happier to boot. Our happiness is not a plastic smile or delusional glee but is a solid interior joy in the beauty of truth that accompanies our mourning for the waywardness and suffering of the world. Faith, hope and love—these three abide together.